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Should You Use a Gutenberg-Optimized Theme?

The Gutenberg block editor has done more to turn the WordPress ecosystem on its head than anything in recent memory. And it has required both web designers and website owners to do some soul-searching.

That might sound like quite a heavy impact for a content editor. But when you consider just how different Gutenberg is from the old Classic Editor, things start to become clearer.

When you think about it, the Classic Editor is, well, just a big word processor in a box. Its lack of flexibility often leads us to bypass it completely and use a page builder plugin instead. While page builders can still do many things that Gutenberg can’t, for rich content creation Gutenberg offers the potential to do much more – and without necessarily needing big, heavy plugins.

Now, those in the market for a WordPress theme have something else to think about. Could a Gutenberg-optimized theme be the best fit for your project?

What a Gutenberg-Optimized Theme Is

A Gutenberg-optimized theme assumes you’ll use the block editor as your main tool for building layouts and creating content.

So, what exactly is a Gutenberg-optimized WordPress theme? An optimized theme will offer features that are designed to help you take advantage of Gutenberg. It assumes you’ll be using it as your primary tool for building page layouts and creating content. As such, you might find:

  • Custom blocks that enable new layout or content options;
  • Custom styles applied to default Gutenberg blocks;
  • Back end editor styles that closely resemble the front end;

This isn’t necessarily a complete listing of potential features. Theme authors may throw in any number of other block-related goodies as well. But it does provide a solid starting point when shopping for a theme.

Why This Is an Important Decision

Like just about every other aspect of WordPress, you have multiple options when it comes to content editing. These days, you can choose to stick with the Classic Editor, use a page builder plugin such as Beaver Builder or Elementor, or opt for Gutenberg.

But when it comes to those last two options, you really are making a long-term commitment. Page builders, even ones that write clean code, are difficult to simply uninstall and move on from. It means reformatting existing content – not a pleasant task on a large website.

Gutenberg is a similar experience. While you certainly can choose to move on to a different editing tool, you’re going to lose some existing formatting (particularly on the back end) during the transition.

Regardless of what direction you go, it’s critical to choose your preferred editor carefully. In essence, you are making an investment in both building and maintaining your website with this editor for the foreseeable future.

Therefore, you’ll want to consider which option makes the most sense for you – both now and a few years from now.

Disrupting the Status Quo of WordPress Themes

The WordPress theme market has been humming along for years by providing users with alternatives to the Classic Editor. This is especially so with commercial themes, where page builders have been a popular throw-in item.

Sometimes, a theme will include a bespoke page-building tool from the theme author. More often, widely-used options like Visual Composer (now known as WPBakery Page Builder) are packaged in.

The basic assumption here is that people who purchase that particular theme probably aren’t interested in the Classic Editor. They’ll want the ability to create custom layouts, embed media and other slick features with a few mouse clicks. That isn’t something the Classic Editor can easily do, and so page builders have been the preferred method.

While this makes sense, it also can make for a frustratingly uneven experience. Not all page builders are alike and some can be quite proprietary (just try disabling one that uses shortcodes). To make matters worse, some users get stuck with an outdated version of a page builder that came bundled with their theme. This can lead to incompatibilities with other plugins and WordPress itself.

A Different Take on Theme Features and Functionality

This is part of why Gutenberg was introduced into WordPress core. One of its aims is to provide a more standardized way to do these tasks. A way to create content that is more theme-independent, thus more modular. Indeed, this is what blocks are intended to do.

Because this functionality is now available within a default installation of WordPress, it theoretically means the role of a theme changes as well. Now, themes can focus on what they’re good at: taking the content you’ve created and styling it accordingly.

If a theme does include extras for content creation and layout, it can do so through custom blocks. These add to the basics that come with WordPress, allowing users to craft more complex pages. And they can do so using a native editing experience, as opposed to that of a page builder.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, we haven’t seen a massive number of theme authors adopt this new methodology just yet.

Gutenberg Block Editor Screen

The Potential Downsides of Gutenberg-Optimized Themes

While this all sounds a bit Utopian, a theme optimized for the block editor has its drawbacks, too.

For one, even a theme that includes a number of custom blocks is still unlikely to match the power and flexibility of an established page builder. That’s not necessarily the fault of the theme author, though.

Just think of the time it took for the biggest page builders to get where they are today. Gutenberg is still very early on in its lifespan and it will take a while for it to catch up – if it ever truly does. It’s debatable whether that is even a goal of the project.

It also matters how custom blocks are implemented. Ideally, they’ll be part of a separate plugin, allowing you to switch themes without losing anything. If they’re fully baked into the theme, you risk losing access to those blocks if you switch themes again down the road.

Overall, Gutenberg’s relative youth may be its biggest drawback.

Overall, Gutenberg’s relative youth may be its biggest drawback. While the ecosystem continues to grow, it still has some gaping holes that need filled in.

Determining Whether a Gutenberg Optimized Theme Makes Sense for You

So, how do you know if a Gutenberg optimized theme is the right choice for you? A lot of it depends on what you need from your content editor right now, along with where you see your website going in the future.

When Gutenberg Makes Sense

There are a number of instances when going with Gutenberg is a great choice. Take, for example, those who are starting a new website from scratch. If you aren’t necessarily looking to fully replicate a page builder experience, but do want to create some more advanced content, the block editor provides a solid foundation.

Those who want more control over their editing environment may also look to Gutenberg. You get to pick and choose features, while customizing the editor to match your needs. There’s a lot more flexibility here than with the typical page builder.

In addition to any blocks that come with your theme, new ones are being released all the time via the WordPress community. And, if what you need doesn’t exist yet, you can even create your own custom blocks to do the job.

The performance and convenience of a native editing solution is also attractive. Using a Gutenberg optimized theme helps you build a beautiful website without the overhead of a massive third-party plugin. Performance enhancements have been steadily released and the UI is much improved since WordPress 5.0.

Reasons to Hold Off

Of course, this newfangled editor may not be right for everyone. To start, Gutenberg’s default offerings – even when combined with custom blocks from your theme – are not as robust as a full-on page builder. This isn’t really a flaw, as Gutenberg isn’t designed to be a complete solution out-of-the-box.

Still, if you want more, you’ll have to add (or even build) your way up when it comes to features. This could be a major turn-off to those who just want to start out with a full slate of options. That’s the big advantage of a theme that bundles a page builder.

Then there are those who have an existing website that utilizes a page builder. You might prefer the continuity of sticking with that builder when you upgrade to a new theme. Otherwise, a switch to Gutenberg could mean reformatting some content. Sometimes that’s desirable, but it depends on your time, budget and future goals.

Page Builder Interface

What Will the Future Look Like for WordPress Themes?

It certainly seems like the WordPress theme market has come to a fork in the road. Many authors are still bundling page builders, while some are slowly moving towards Gutenberg. Things are still heavily tilted towards the former, however.

The longer the block editor is around, the more theme authors will look to utilize it.

One wonders how long this imbalance will remain. Gutenberg certainly isn’t going anywhere, as it has a large amount of resources dedicated to its future development. It would appear that, the longer the block editor is around, the more theme authors will look to utilize it.

So, does this mean you should avoid a theme that includes a page builder? Probably not for the foreseeable future.

The page builders that have a strong user base and revenue stream are likely to be around for the long haul. They haven’t gone running for the hills just yet, and don’t appear to be in any immediate danger of doing so.

But it’s not all sunshine. Perhaps the biggest downside of staying with the theme and page builder model is innovation. As WordPress continues to build around Gutenberg, it’s possible that these types of themes become outdated. In addition, theme authors may simply pay less attention to them as they move on to the new way of doing things.

Building with or Without Blocks: An Important Decision

Taking it all into consideration, the most future-proof decision is to opt for a Gutenberg optimized theme. However, it’s far from a requirement at this point in time.

Both WordPress and its vibrant community are all about providing options. So, if you’d prefer a theme that is geared towards a page builder – go for it!

Likewise, if you want to take advantage of the latest developments in WordPress, look for a theme that caters to the block editor. The selection may be somewhat limited when compared to more established products, but it’s where things are headed.

Eric Karkovack

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April 16, 2020 1:57 pm

But you didn’t include a third option — building a theme without either a page-builder or that is optimized for Gutenberg, correct? I left WP when Gutenberg first was rolled out. I’m now revisiting to see what’s up, where things are at. Isn’t the third option still a possibiity? Do you think the Classic Editor will truly disappear in 2022?

Eric Karkovack
April 17, 2020 11:26 am
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You certainly can build a theme that utilizes the Classic Editor. To me, it’s still a viable option for the time being.

It’s really hard to say what is going to happen with the editor, though. My guess is that, even if WP doesn’t officially support it after 2021, someone could potentially fork it and keep it alive in some form.

Eventually, though, it’s likely to be Gutenberg or a page builder as your only workable options.

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